Past studies have shown that traumatic experiences in childhood can have negative implications for brain development. Now, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics finds severe childhood neglect may cause structural changes to white matter in the brain, but that early intervention could reverse such changes.

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Severe child neglect was associated with alterations in the structure of the brain’s white matter.

Johanna Bick, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital, MA, and colleagues reached their findings by analyzing the effects of neglect on brain development among 136 abandoned Romanian children who had been a part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) since 2000.

The children were recruited to the study at the age of 2 years, by which point they had already spent half of their lives in institutional care – the standard care for abandoned children in Bucharest, Romania, at the time of recruitment.

At study baseline, the children were randomly assigned to either remain in institutional care or move to foster care, which the researchers say was “almost nonexistent” at this time. Foster care programs were developed specifically to care for the children in this study.

“As part of the program, foster parents were encouraged to develop responsive, committed relationships with their child, were educated on the child’s specialized cognitive and emotional needs, and were provided guidance on behavioral management strategies to support the child’s optimal development,” the authors note.

All children underwent developmental assessments at the beginning of the study and were compared with a group of age-matched children who had never been in institutional care and had been raised with their biological families. Assessments were conducted again when the children were aged 30 months, 42 months, 54 months, 8 years and 12 years.

Diffusion tensor imaging was used to analyze white matter abnormalities among 69 of the children at the age of 8-11 years. Of these, 26 stayed in institutional care, 23 moved from institutional care to foster care and 20 had never been in institutional care.

The researchers found that, compared with children who had never been in institutional care, those who remained in such care showed structural alterations in certain areas of the brain’s white matter, including the corpus callosum, parts of the limbic circuitry and sensory processing areas.

Among children who had been moved from institutional care to foster care, however, the researchers found the structure of their white matter was similar to that of children who had never been in institutional care, suggesting that the movement to foster care reversed any white matter abnormalities that may have occurred.

Commenting on their findings, the researchers say:

Results from this study contribute to growing evidence that severe neglect in early life affects the structural integrity of white matter throughout the brain and that early intervention may support long-term remediation in specific fiber tracts involved in limbic and frontostriatal circuitry and the sensory processes.

Our findings have important implications for public health related to early prevention and intervention for children reared in conditions of severe neglect or adverse contexts more generally.”

The team says future research should focus on gaining a better understanding of the association between early-life child neglect and white matter changes in the brain, and how such changes affect psychiatric functioning.

In October 2014, a spotlight feature by Medical News Today investigated how childhood abuse and bullying, as well as other negative life experiences, shape our brains.